Thoughts and tips for the AWS Certified Solutions Architect Associate exam

I have recently taken the AWS Certified Solutions Architect Associate exam. In this post I'll write about some tips to pass the exam and will share my opinion on the effects of being AWS-certified.

1. About CSAA

The AWS Certified Solutions Architect Associate (CSAA) exam is probably the most frequently attempted first exam for developers, devops engineers and solutions architects who work with and are interested in deepening their understanding in the services of AWS.

The exam tests the ability of the candidate to effectively demonstrate how to build and deploy highly available, fault tolerant and cost effective architectures and applications.

It also measures if the candidate is able to design solutions based on the needs of the customers, and the owner of the certificate should be able to provide guidance to the customer throughout the lifecycle of the project.

2. Preparation and exam

The exam itself is not easy.

The questions are around the five pillars of the Well-Architected Framework, which are operational excellence, security, reliability, performance efficiency and cost optimization. It’s worth reading the whitepaper, however it’s not an easy read, and one probably won’t be able to read it in one sitting.

Many questions are about cost efficiency, which is understandable. Money is probably the most important factor in making decisions for most companies even if it’s not ideal.

If you decide to take the exam, here are some tips.

2.1. Guided study

I heard opinions that structured learning doesn’t exist in software development and I assume that people who say that might mean this for cloud as well. (Or they might just say this so that they don’t have to sit down and mentor you.)

I think the above statement is opinionated, and although there is room for the go-discover-break method (more on this below), I think that some sort of structure of guidance in the study process is very beneficial, especially if one doesn’t have a broad experience with AWS.

AWS itself provides free and paid courses. From my experience, the free courses are not enough to get the necessary knowledge for the exam. Paid, classroom-style workshops are very expensive (around $2,500), which I couldn’t afford, so I don’t know if they are worth it. If you are lucky enough and your company pays for it to you, then I’d recommend attending one of these workshops. I think they provide more benefits than conferences, where you’ll mostly hear about stuff you won’t ever use in your every-day life.

Luckily, there a several great courses out there, which provide an organized way of learning with more or less detailed explanations.

I’d definitely recommend the Certified Solutions Architect Associate from DolfinEd. Eissa is a very dedicated educator, and provides great, detailed explanations on each topic.

The knowledge you can get from this course is probably more than enough for the exam. The topics are organized in a way that the most time is spent on the basics and the most important concepts (VPC, EC2, S3 etc). He’s very responsive when it comes to answering questions from students.

2.2. New technologies and case studies

New services are not featured in the exam for about 6 months after their announcement. It’s worth watching though some re:Invent videos on Youtube, especially if you want to get an even deeper understanding in a topic. They usually have case studies and real implementation stories towards the end and the topics are usually presented in a more practical manner. I personally enjoyed watching why AWS created, for example, the DynamoDB DAX service, or what lead to the birth of Aurora.

2.3. Special exam preparation

I’d recommend taking some practice tests starting in the 10-12 days before the exam.

Jon Bonso and Neil Davis have put together some really great practice exam papers, where the questions are about the same level of difficulty as the real exam (the questions are, of course, different). It’s really worth going over at least one of them (I can recommend both instructors) to get the feel of what kind of questions are expected under exam-like conditions.

In my opinion, this part is an important one for passing the exam.

2.4. The exam

The exam goes for 130 minutes, and one has to answer 65 questions. It’s easy to do the maths and say that one has 2 minutes for each question.

This is not exactly how it works. Some questions are short, and they test if one knows the answer or not. Answering these questions takes about 20-30 seconds max.

The time you can save here can be used for answering the scenario based questions, which are usually long questions, consisting of 5-6 lines and a few sentences. The answers can also be long often with a difference of only one or two words between them. Sometimes just reading the questions thoroughly takes a minute, so save time for these ones.

One can mark questions for review, which means that once all questions are seen, it’s possible to go back and have a look at the questions again, and change the answer.

You will know if you passed or failed after exam. It was very annoying that I had to answer some customer satisfaction survey first, and although I was confident that I passed the exam, there was still a steadily growing tension in me when another survey question like rate the level of difficulty of the exam from 1 to 10 came up.

3. The benefits of the certificate

Finally, let me write down some personal thoughts about how I feel being certified.

It’s interesting because what the world perceives is usually not the same as the way I (or you) see it.

In my opinion, the certificate doesn’t mean that you have practical knowledge. Unfortunately, it’s possible to pass the exam by just practicing exam questions. This is, of course, pointless, and one will trick both themselves and their employers into false beliefs.

It’s essential to have practical knowledge. Have as much practice in your account as possible. Creating an account is free, and AWS provides free tier on many services. Go and build a VPC from scratch. Play around with API Gateway and CloudFront. Build applications and infrastructures. It will sometimes cost 2-3 dollars a month, but I think it’s worth it.

Unless one comes with years of experience, the certificate is a good way to prove one’s determination and interest in AWS (and generally cloud) technologies. It’s a solid foundation which one can build a firm, practical knowledge on.

On the other side, for your colleagues you might become the expert now, and this comes with responsibility. They will start or keep asking you awful lot of questions, and you don’t want to seem incompetent.

I’m not saying that one has to be able to answer every question. It’s OK not to know answers. I don’t have hands-on experience with many services in AWS. I also don’t know the answer to some questions where I feel I should. This is normal, and it inspires me to keep expanding my knowledge, and move on to the next level. That’s why we all get certified, right?

Thanks for reading and see you next time.